ESPN Buys Stake in the Arena Football League

ESPN has purchased a minority stake in the Arena Football League in a five-year deal that includes the Disney networks airing a minimum of 26 games per year beginning in 2007.

ESPN will manage the in-game ad inventory and also gets multi-media rights as part of the deal.

Looking to capitalize on the strong ratings for Monday Night Football in its first year, ESPN will air most of its 17 regular-season games on Monday nights.

However, the Arena Football League is Arena fantasy game on nowhere near the draw of the National Football League, as the 21-year-old indoor outfit drew sub-one ratings on Sundays on NBC in recent years.  ESPN will air most of the games on ESPN2.

ABC will, however, carry two games, including the season-opener and the championship game.

The Arena League still has additional television packages to negotiate, including both national and regional packages.  The league is looking at a Friday night national package, with the NFL Network a possible destination. 

League commissioner David Baker said that the AFL board met with five different potential media partners before striking the ESPN deal.  The league is also exploring a satellite radio deal.

ESPN’s Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman will assume similar duties with the Arena Football League package.

John Skipper, ESPN executive vice president of content, maintains that having an ownership stake in the league will not bring up any conflicts of interest, such as coverage within flagship news program SportsCenter.

“I think we understand how to separate our production of games from our news and information coverage,” Skipper says.

ESPN on-air talent Mike Ditka and Ron Jaworski both have interests in Arena Football League teams.

ESPN and ABC have previously carried Arena Football League contests including the 1987 championship on ESPN and various regular-season and playoff packages from 1995-2002.